Different Brains Hear Music The Same Way
April 11, 2013

Though Our Brains Are Different, They Respond To Music In The Same Way

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Music is everywhere in modern life, from retail stores to subway stations, and a new study suggests why it is able to bring so many people together. According to researchers, it´s because music has the power to affect different brains in the same way.

In a new report in the“¯European Journal of Neuroscience, Stanford scientists describe how they were able to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify remarkably similar brain activity patterns among study participants as they listened to unfamiliar classical music.

"We spend a lot of time listening to music — often in groups, and often in conjunction with synchronized movement and dance," said senior author Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford.

"Here, we've shown for the first time that despite our individual differences in musical experiences and preferences, classical music elicits a highly consistent pattern of activity across individuals in several brain structures including those involved in movement planning, memory and attention."

To isolate music, not language, as the primary stimulus, the research group used classical music without lyrics. The researchers also chose music that was unfamiliar to participants in an attempt to eliminate any previous biases or potential memories that might be elicited by hearing a certain song.

The study included 17 participants, nine men and eight women, who had little or no musical training. All of the participants were right-handed since left-handed people´s brains tend to diverge from the conventional maps of brain structures that are based on studies of right-handed persons.

While listening to the classical music through headphones, participants kept their heads in a fixed position within the MRI chamber, allowing their brains to be scanned for over nine minutes. During the scanning, participants listened to two different kinds of "pseudo-musical” stimuli. One stimulus had the classical music´s rhythm element removed, while the other stimulus kept the classical piece´s rhythm but removed its melodic and harmonic elements.

The team found that activity levels in several brain regions responded similarly across different individuals who were exposed to the same musical stimuli. The pseudo-music produced either a subtle response or no response in these same brain regions.

Some of the more active brain structures included the right-brain complements of two significant structures in the left-brain — the so-called Broca´s and Geschwind's areas, which are known to be vital for language understanding.

"These right-hemisphere brain areas track non-linguistic stimuli such as music in the same way that the left hemisphere tracks linguistic sequences," Menon explained.

The researchers also found significant activity in the motor-planning centers of the brain in response to music when compared with pseudo-music stimuli. This finding suggests that our brains react naturally to music by prepping for movements that often accompany music listening such as dancing, singing or clapping. Thus similar brain activity also makes it more likely that our movements can be socially coordinated.

"Our method can be extended to a number of research domains that involve interpersonal communication. We are particularly interested in language and social communication in autism," Menon said. "Do children with autism listen to speech the same way as typically developing children? If not, how are they processing information differently? Which brain regions are out of sync?"